King County effort may create opportunity for affordable housing

As the cost of housing continues to rise throughout the region, King County is promoting a demonstration project that could lead to a new affordable housing project on Vashon.

Vashon HouseHold’s Chris Szala stressed that nothing related to the project is finalized, but as part of this county-driven effort, there is potential for a project on a parcel of land south of downtown Vashon for as many as 40 small units, spread throughout five 1,500-square-foot buildings, that would be built with green technology — including solar power and a gray water system — and be affordable to islanders with low incomes.

This possibility arose recently when King County’s Department of Community and Human Services issued a request for information from unincorporated areas. Mark Ellerbrook, who heads the department, said that the county’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted in December of last year, calls for more flexibility in land use restrictions so that more types of housing might address some of the urgent housing needs in the region. Members of the King County Council added this directive to the plan, and Szala summed up what is currently happening.

“The county council wants to see if people can do something new and interesting and different out here,” he said.

In response to the plan’s directive, Ellerbrook said his agency put out the information request to see what affordable housing developers would need to provide for innovative housing in their communities. The ideas that came back, he said, included the ability to provide land for tiny homes as well as ideas regarding micro and modular housing.

“We are early on, but are excited about alternative housing models,” he said.

For his part, Szala said the 1.3-acre plot of land the nonprofit would like to build on was offered to the agency for affordable housing. It is on the sewer line, comes with five water shares and is not a wetland — as many unbuilt properties near town are. He cautioned that the planning is in the early stages, but said that the project under consideration is micro housing — with units about 300 to 350 square feet. He likened the buildings to a motel, with each room having a microwave and refrigerator, with the possibility of double units, as well as larger common areas for kitchens and laundry.

He expects demand to be high.

“We know that we could fill these overnight,” he said.

Green features would include “super high efficiency” washers and toilets, with gray water recycling and zero water landscaping.

Currently, he said, he is working with water engineers to determine just how many units could be built with the five water shares. He, accompanied by two county officials, presented the possible project to Water District 19 at a commissioners meeting last week.

Jim McRae, general manager of the water district, said he believes the project is feasible.

“As long as their plan is what we understand, I do not see a problem with water availability,” he said.

With five water shares, Vashon HouseHold would have the right to 4,000 gallons a month, which he said “sounds adequate” for the project. The water district will need more information before making a final determination, including what the appliances will be and their water use. He noted that an additional important factor is that the King County fire marshal will determine the necessary water flow for the project.

McRae added that while Vashon HouseHold plans to use gray water if the project comes to fruition, the water district is encouraging Szala to make sure the project will have enough water without that system.

Ultimately, if the project moves ahead, the water district will need to provide a certificate of water availability, which McRae said it would do after all questions regarding water availability have been addressed and when there is a formal request for it.

The possibility of this project is coming on the heels of a contentious process regarding the development of affordable housing on Vashon. Under the direction of King County, Vashon created a Community Service Area Plan, in a process that spanned more than a year and a half and ended late last year. That plan included some incentives for building affordable housing, including the development of an overlay in the town area that would allow for increased density as long as all the units were intended for low-income residents. Several islanders expressed concern about that provision of the plan, believing that they may put too much pressure on the natural resources of the island and Water District 19 itself.

That history is not figuring into the water district’s involvement with this potential project, McRae said, noting that the district is treating this like any construction project. Speaking for himself, he said that it was good to see agencies working together on this effort.

“I am a proponent of coming up with some way to provide housing for island families,” he said. “I think it is a good thing if it is done well.”

At this time, the proposed project would not make use of the special overlay from the CSA Plan, Szala said, adding that he hoped that some elements of the project would create supporters.

“You will always have naysayers,” he said. “I hope all the green factors will bring the community together. That is what we are trying to do.”

Looking ahead, King County’s Ellerbrook said he and his staff will finish completing the analysis of the information they received from the housing developers and then create a request for proposals for innovative housing models or modified land use, likely in the second quarter of this year. From there, he said he expects the county will select one or two projects for a pilot effort, which could be used to develop other kinds of housing the county is hoping to promote. He cautioned that the county may not have funding for the projects, but may only provide land use authority. Moving forward, there will be county requirements along the way, including coordinating with the executive and county council before the RFP will be released.

Additionally, Ellerbrook said the King County council would need to approve any modifications to land use code. Once that step is completed, approved projects could move ahead.

Ideally, he said, one or two projects would be selected by fall. He acknowledged the lack of affordable housing on the island and around the region.

“We feel it acutely and are certainly aware of the need on Vashon,” he said.

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